Any pre-conceived assumptions that opening rounds of fixtures at major competitions are inherently drab and mundane affairs were dashed last night, as the first pair of games threw up two red cards, seven goals and an early contender for the imperative ‘dark horses’ moniker.
Russia’s game with the Czechs always offered far greater grounds for optimism after what many would have deemed, on paper at least, a Poland versus Greece tie bereft of players capable of really sparkling and setting the tie alight. Imperiously dominant both in performance and the scoreline, the ‘Sbornaya’ certainly didn’t disappoint.
Spearheaded by a rejuvenated Andrei Arshavin and the much-heralded future of Russian football Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow, the 4-1 final scoreline was somewhat tame when considering Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s profligacy in front of goal for the most part.
It took the Russians just 15 minutes to open the scoring, Dzagoev’s burst from deep resulting in a parting of the Czech defence, sending Konstantin Zyryanov free down the right flank. With Kerzhakov’s spurned opportunity at the back post, it was that man Dzagoev that was there to pick up the pieces, slamming Russia’s first in to the corner of a helpless Petr Čech’s goal.
After long periods enjoying the lion’s share of possession and momentum early on, the Czechs now found themselves firmly on the back foot, and it took Russia just ten minutes to add a second. Jaroslav Plašil’s sloppy and ill-directed stray pass in front of the Russian 18-yard box sprung a devastating counter-attack, culminating in the impressive Arshavin delivering a perfectly weighted slide rule pass to the oft deep-lying Roman Shirokov to delicately lift the ball over a slow to react Čech for a blistering 2-0 lead after just 24 minutes.
As the half progressed, Vyacheslav Malafeev in the Russian goal began to look more and more redundant as the men in red streamed forward looking to put the game to bed before the interval. However, Michal Bílek’s men stood firm and kept the scoreline respectable heading in to the break, with Russia’s failure to find a third condemning them to a shaky second half on the back of the infamous two-goal cushion.
Alas, it was the Czech Republic who engineered a response with the resumption of play, Václav Pilař gracefully rounding Malafeev after getting on the end of a sumptuous Tomáš Rosický pass before slotting home tidily against an increasingly acute angle. With a vast chunk of the game still to be played, the tie was perfectly balanced to go on to provide more drama, and it was to do just that.
Arshavin again picked up the mantle as captain of his country to lead them forward in swathes as they probed for a third, attempting to finally see off a resilient Czech side who had just substituted arguably their most dynamic and intuitive outlet of the first half in Petr Jiráček, a marauding winger replaced by the largely ineffective Milan Petržela.
It took a great deal of patience and poise before the Russians seized their moment in the 79th minute of the game, as the co-star of the show Alan Dzagoev doubled his tally, giving strike partner Aleksandr Kerzhakov a lesson in finishing in the process as he lashed home above and beyond the reach of a despairing, and largely disappointing Petr Čech to put the game well and truly back at the mercy of Russia.
A quick cameo from former Tottenham hitman Roman Pavlyuchenko as he rifled home from the edge of the box provided the icing on the cake for a side now cruising to a 4-1 victory against an opposition unwilling to simply roll and over, testament to Dick Advocaat’s insistence on his side sticking to their guns and playing free-flowing, attacking football in order to achieve the results they desire.
Highlights of Russia’s dominant 4-1 victory over Czech Republic
Perhaps a premature labelling of Russia as dark horses to potentially even go on to win the competition, this game at least served to warn the rest of the competition that the Russians are by no means here to make up the numbers, and that the combination between Arshavin and Dzagoev is a formidable one when allowed to flourish. Warsaw will host the next game in which a fascinated spectatorship the continent over will run the rule over Russia’s true credentials as they face co-hosts Poland on June 12.